Stories of sexual harassment are everywhere. If you haven’t experienced it (one in four Australian women have), you’ve probably witnessed it. You’ve no doubt thought about whether or not somebody in your own office has ‘crossed the line’.
Today, Sex Discrimination Commissioner Liz Broderick shares her sexual harassment story – explaining her own experiences as a young lawyer when persistent advancements from a client left her feeling powerless, embarrassed and questioning her career.
She’s spoken out about such experiences for the launch of the Know Where The Line Is awareness strategy, a joint initiative of the Australian Human Rights Commission, the ACTU and the ACCI.
It’s a strategy I hope will encourage more women to share their experiences with sexual harassment. Such stories offer a reminder that although women may not take action at the time, it’s never too late to reflect back on the experience, to alert others of what to look out for, and reassure young women that they do not have to put up with it.
Broderick’s story reminded me of my own experiences with sexual harassment – particularly one as a volunteer at a community radio station while still in university. Like Broderick, it’s a story that I haven’t previously shared – aside from with a couple of colleagues and close friends at the time.
Having my own radio show and sharing Australian music that I was passionate about was an exhilarating experience. It was two hours of airtime a week that I obsessed over, becoming the centerpiece and key priority of a life that was then filled with lectures, part-time work and socialising.
But it only lasted six months.
While there were a number of factors that contributed to why I gave it up, the major one was the presence of an older man on the station’s board who had significant power over how the station was run and who had been a part of its history for two decades. He was a well-respected individual who’d actually picked up a number of awards for his services to the local community.
He continually commented on my talent and was solely responsible for setting me up with my own show. Within a few months, he was making unwelcome advances – blatantly making comments such as “how about a kiss”, following me to my car, asking to take me out to dinner and at one point even stepping further than the boundaries of where harassment becomes indecent assault. After that particular incident I remember sobbing in my car all the way home, questioning if this was simply the reality of the world I was stepping into and wondering how I would explain what had just happened to my then boyfriend.
With very little experience in the working world, and absolutely none in community radio or media at that time, part of me thought this was to be expected. It may well have been a reflection of my confidence at the time, and my desperation for some kind of break in what is a notoriously difficult industry. Perhaps I just need to toughen up. Perhaps it was merely a matter of practice: deal with the creepy men in your volunteer and interning positions so you’re prepared for the realities of paid positions later on.
I eventually brought in a male friend from university to co-host the show, and this swiftly saw the unwanted advances stop.
However, my strategic move also saw a new form of abuse commence. My sexual harasser turned into my biggest critic, suddenly deciding that he disliked the sound of my voice and the quality of my show. At one point he even made a formal complaint about a song put to air that he considered offensive (it was playing on major commercial radio stations at the time).
I gave up it up, deciding to pursue other avenues of work experience and other forms of media. It turned me off the career in radio and saw me question just what women could expect to experience no matter what career she pursued. What’s also disappointing is that it turned me off volunteering for community organisations altogether.
A couple of months after officially quitting the station I received a phone call out of the blue from another young woman who started as a volunteer the same day as me. She too had been sexually harassed by this particular individual and wanted to ask if I’d experienced anything similar. For a fleeting moment we both shared a significant bond. We’d been made to feel ashamed, afraid, guilty and powerless by the same man. We made a decision to tell another long-term older male volunteer at the station about what we’d experienced who told us ‘this isn’t the first time I’ve heard complaints about him’. He talked us out of making a formal complaint. On reflection, I believe he too felt powerless.
I didn’t take it any further. I was embarrassed by the fact my gender had possibly contributed to me getting the show in the first place and that I may have somehow enabled the harassment to continue. It was easier to walk away than to deal with it head-on.
And besides, who was I – a 19-year-old university student with no experience in radio – to question the credibility of a married family man with a prominent standing in the community? Who was I to disrupt the history of a successful community radio station by claiming one of its lead actors was actually continually and systematically sexually harassing young women, and possibly worse?
That’s how I felt at the time. Now, more than ten years later, I can ask: who was I to believe that such harassment was tolerable, and that this man’s stellar reputation shouldn’t be tarnished by his personal actions?
Who was I NOT to share that story?
While I appreciate not everybody wants to discuss such stories – and that many, many women have experienced workplace situations that are far worse – I hope more of us can start sharing these experiences.